“Patriotic Treason” by Evan Carton (2006)
Any reader who believes he or she knows anything about John Brown will be enlightened by Carton’s keen, sobering view of this historical iconoclast. By exploring Brown’s interior landscape—sometimes in the voice of Brown, sometimes in the voice of those close to him—Carton unearths a more rounded character of this figure who is more famous for an act of treason than any of his more palatable deeds.
“Ralph Ellison” by Arnold Rampersad (2007)
Written with the same unpretentious genius he applied to his biographies of Langston Hughes and Arthur Ashe, “Ralph Ellison” is Rampersad’s exploration of Ellison’s legacy far beyond “Invisible Man.” We get a view of Ellison not simply as an intellectual writer, but also as a human being who struggled with his own self-image, vulnerability and relationships. The book reads as if a close friend were revealing Ellison’s deepest secrets.
“Iraqi Poetry Today” edited by Saadi Simawe (2003)
“Beyond the horizon, far beyond the borders of nations, you weep.” The words of Nazik al-Mala´ka, indeed, encourage us to weep not for the other but for ourselves for not having the opportunity, readily, to hear the lyric brilliance of these 40 poets. Here is a literary tradition wrought from oppression and modernism, art and survival.
“Messenger: New and Selected Poems (1976-2006)” by Ellen Bryant Voigt (2007)
A special wisdom is offered by a poet who has spent much of her life making sense of the world around us. Voigt offers 30 years’ worth of transcendence. In “After Keats” she writes, “I have always loved the truth.” Voigt offers a consistent dose of honesty through poems that are syntactically taut and emotionally resonant.
“The Bridegroom Was a Dog” by Yoko Tawada (1998)
Not only does this novella offer one of the best first sentences I’ve ever read, seducing readers into this sexy, gothic story, but it also lives up to it through another 168 pages. A respected schoolteacher in a rural province gets entangled in a romance that takes a surprising turn when she questions some of her partner’s sexual predilections.
“Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly and the Politics of Thirst” by Diane Raines Ward (2002)
Imagine following a stream of water once you turn the handle on a faucet and being able to see where it ends up and where it was before it got to your glass. This is an extreme close up down an environmental rabbit hole, written with the lyric intensity of a poet.
“A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving (1989)
Irving’s best novel, full of heart, wonderful characters and a little mystery. The story is set in New England in the 1960s and rests on the relationship between two boys, but this is not the usual coming-of-age narrative. Owen Meany is unforgettable.
“Bodies in Motion and at Rest” by Thomas Lynch (2000)
Lynch is a small town funeral director in Michigan. He is also an award-winning poet and writer who shares with his readers both the mundane and the sacred aspects of his day job. The essays collected in this book are moving and surprising and sometimes wickedly funny.
“Rising Tide” by John Barry (1997)
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, anyone familiar with this amazing social history could have predicted what was about to happen to the city. Barry tells the human and political story of our misplaced efforts to control the Mississippi River, how the Great Flood of 1927 made Herbert Hoover president, sparked the migration of black families to the north and led to the fall of New Orleans as the south’s most important city.
“All Over But the Shoutin’” by Rick Bragg (1997)
Bragg filled the Texas Senate Chamber a few years ago when he talked about his life and this memoir at the Texas Book Festival. It’s a beautifully written tribute to his mother and to his own complicated journey from rural southern poverty to roaming the globe as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times.
“Washington” by Meg Greenfield (2001)
Near the end of her life, Greenfield brought her journalistic eye to bear on the political subculture of Washington, D.C. The happy result is this knowing book, a sort of anthropological explanation of How Washington Really Works. Washington is like high school, she explains, in its insularity, its peculiar customs and the behavior of the usual characters—the team captains, the “good kids,” the whiz kids, the protégés.
“Their Dogs Came with Them” by Helena Maria Viramontes (2007)
Viramontes’s 1960s East L.A. is so tensely written, so thoroughly inhabited that every moment feels as ominous as pre-earthquake stillness. “Dogs” tracks a refracted array of lives—mainly Latinas—as they live in the “Bladerunner” shadow of a rising freeway exchange, about to obliterate everything.
“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami (1997)
This hypnotic novel draws you in like the boiling spaghetti water that opens it. Slowly it becomes an Alice in Wonderland journey of missing cats, mod sibyls and stunning World War II set pieces. You emerge feeling like the History Channel and the everyday mundane draw from the same waking dream.
“Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business” by David Mamet (2007)
Who will spill the goods on Hollywood? Mamet will. Why? Because he can. “Let me see if I can offend several well meaning groups at once,” he begins. Blunt, gleeful truths follow on producers, scripts and more. An unfazed tour of the entertainment sausage factory—from someone who has seen what goes into every link.
“La Perdida” by Jessica Abel (2006)
It could have been easy to satirize a half-white, half-Mexican woman student searching for her “Frida” roots in Mexico City. But Abel draws a funny, bittersweet graphic novel about Carla, who encounters trust fund expats and Marxist students on the way to learning the consequences of projecting her desire for total identity south of Chicago.
“Chronicles: Volume 1” by Bob Dylan (2004)
I can pick up this memoir anywhere and laugh. That is because I am inside Dylan’s mind, caroming like a bumper car across 30 years of popular culture he defined and then, like the best con men, split. On any page you are left unsure if Dylan is being straight, or playing a poker-faced joke. Whee!
“With His Pistol in His Hand” by Américo Paredes (1958)
In methodical, restrained prose, Paredes marshals forensic evidence for how Gregorio Cortez out-rode the Texas Rangers and passed into legend. Fifty years after publication, “Pistol” is still like watching a masterful expert witness change the mood in the courtroom where southwestern history is being tried.
“Means of Ascent” by Robert Caro (1990)
This down-to-the-wire story of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1948 election to the U.S. Senate is still one of my favorite cliffhangers. You are along for the ride as Johnson barnstorms across Texas in a newfangled helicopter, descending UFO-like on rural communities like a handshaking, baby-kissing machine. Read this, then visit the President’s animatronic robot at his library on campus.
“Caribou Rising” by Rick Bass (2004)
Bass, whose roots run deep in Texas, is a master storyteller. This short (164 pages) but eloquent tribute to Arctic wildlife was written by someone who can mix a poet’s vision with a naturalist’s rigor. He is narrative, passionate and personal, and there is a bittersweet, aching quality to this book—something akin to watching smoke disappear.
“No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy (2005)
This is mesmerizing proof that you can be riveted by a plot and lured to turn the page by someone writing in an extraordinarily literary way. The themes are eternal but so well told, so precisely crafted, that they resonate in intense bursts. The economy of his prose is astounding. Short sentences speak volumes.
“Sometimes It’s New York” by Claude Stanush (2007)
Written by a Texas treasure, this collection of short stories is a wonderful mix of tales that touch on love lost and found, hubris, human inconsistencies and the unforgiving nature of, well, nature. These are sparkling stories, ones that highlight human frailties and longings—and have a Flannery O’Connor-ish underpinning of spirituality.
“Run With the Hunted” by Charles Bukowski (1994)
This collection is rough-edged, disturbing and unrepentant. Bukowski’s been idolized as a countercultural writer, but that diminishes his painful truths about the soul-eroding nature of the workplace, being disenfranchised in modern America and how people insist on hurting each other. He’s perhaps best summarized by this line: “I made practice runs down to skid row to prepare for my future.”
“Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend” by Joe Drape (2006)
Drape is the horse racing writer for The New York Times, and this biography is about the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. A cautionary look at the son of Kentucky sharecroppers who at one point found himself leading 260 of the Tsar’s horses to safety during the Bolshevik Revolution. It is narrative history with muscular writing.
“Crescent” by Diana Abu-Jaber (2003)
This was an enjoyable book that brought to life Arab-American culture in Los Angeles, contrasting it with current and past visions of life in Iraq. The main character was a cook, and I enjoyed her descriptions of food. Her narrative biography, “The Language of Baklava,” further illuminated the split life of old country and new.
“The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss (2005)
No this isn’t a romance novel, but actually an interesting journey that is an obituary of a man’s life. The last words of the book are, “He fell in love. It was his life.” If you enjoyed “Everything Is Illuminated,” which I read right before this, this book is written in a similar style of beautiful writing combined with a story that keeps turning. I learned later that these authors were related.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Moshin Hamid (2007)
This is a short, intelligent, disturbing book that may leave you wondering what its conclusion was. It’s the story of the search for, and attainment of, the American Dream and then the sudden reflection of emptiness after having succeeded.
“Lost in Translation” by Nicole Mones (1998)
A trip into China in which the main character is involved in looking for the remains of the Peking Man. The description of China is so vivid it comes alive in your mind.
“Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged” by Robert Frost (1969)
As a teenager I loved the poems of Robert Frost, the simple truths revealed in the common, yet exceptional verse. A must read! When young I used to serve this up with side helpings of e.e. cummings.
Science News (www.sciencenews.org)
I like to keep up with what is going on in many disciplines of science and look forward to this weekly news magazine that has interesting articles from many fields. Much better than picking up your science in the newspaper and more current than a book!
“In Patagonia” by Bruce Chatwin (1977)
Every summer you should read one great travel book. Chatwin speaks of the need for adventure and all of its unpredictable results. I grew up in this area of South America, and I find Chatwin’s evocation of this most southern of inhabited lands incomprehensively foreign, yet familiar. I must have read this book 10 times and still find things to love about it.
“Living to Tell the Tale” by Gabriel García Márquez (2005)
And if not travel, summer is at least for reading about the interesting lives of others. What makes this autobiography so engaging is that it’s not entirely an autobiography, but merely an opportunity for Márquez to use the past to intertwine forays into the fictional places he has created through his literature.
“In Light of India” by Octavio Paz (1998)
In my opinion, this is one of the best things written about India. Paz, an attaché to the Mexican embassy in India, is full of the travel lust and need to understand of being young. With the literary skills of a Nobel laureate, he ruminates on the connection and fate of India and Mexico, two countries which have shared a connection since the Spanish set out to discover a route to India and instead ran into Mexico.
“Cod” by Mark Kurlansky (1999)
It’s summer and what most brings it to mind is a little fishing, or in Kurlansky’s words “a thousand-year fishing spree.” This is Kurlansky at his best, full of the odd facts and histories that make his book such an interesting read. He masterfully stitches information together to make it one of the best studies of a species—and of such an ugly fish!
“Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan” by Jamie Zeppa (1999)
After working with poor people through my fieldwork programs, students are always asking me about taking on jobs in far-off places where they can effect change. What makes this book on that kind of journey so compelling is its incredible honesty and its bittersweet connection with a place truly foreign to most of us. It also fulfills the romance category that must be part of any summer list.